How to Use the Numbers: Lessons from Tech Forum West

People often think of publishing as an intuitive business where decisions are made on gut feelings alone. But I had the privilege of dispelling this oversimplification when I moderated a panel at our Tech Forum West in Vancouver last week called “Using The Numbers to Optimize Your Sales Strategy.” I got to sit down with three data nerds who work in the industry and discuss what publishing houses—sales departments, in particular—do with those precious sales numbers. Ok, perhaps “precious” shows my bias as a BookNet employee, but I strongly believe that having sales figures and knowing what to do with them is critical to the success of publishers (and bookstores, for that matter). Sales numbers are vital of trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t and where to go next.

Sian Bumsted of Simon and Schuster Canada, Erin Creasey from ECW Press and Sandy Cooper from Raincoast Books are three women who look at the numbers every day. They work everyday with data sets coming in from every direction to figure out stock levels, to make reprint decisions, to do gap analysis to see where they’ve been and where they’re going.Working in the data mines is not necessarily as romantic as the intuitive side to business but it does seem to give you some juicy insights. Sales reports are crucial to determining the timing and size of reprints, assessing the success of sales promotions, and gauging the effectiveness of publicity and marketing campaigns and tweaking them in real-time, if needed.

I asked them what data sources are important to them and a handful of providers came up not least of which was BNC SalesData. They also gather data from BookScan, Costco, Amazon, Indigo, etc., to generate reports. Sandy displayed a huge spreadsheet (not for the faint of heart!) that spread over 50 columns. But she stressed the importance of following through on what reports show us. “Reports aren’t any good unless you come out with some action points,” she said.

Sian works specifically with the wholesale channel and I was struck by how much Sian’s position changes on a daily basis. “Everyday revolves around the data.” Different wholesale channels deliver peer data at completely different times and S&S keeps up with it on a daily basis, constantly re-forecasting and monitoring.

Erin Creasey—who had so many great tips and insights one is tempted to take her Sales and Marketing class at Ryerson just to hear more—talked about gap reports and using one territory’s sales to influence stock decisions in another territory. Trending and identifying sales trajectories was also something the ladies spent time on. The panel really got into the nitty-gritty of data analysis and how to apply sales insights and emphasized the need to be more nimble and more watchful because the industry is more unpredictable these days.

The role sales analysis plays in editorial also came up, and how much historical sales data influences acquisitions. It’s no secret that some complain that sales information “rationalizes” the market to the detriment of the culture. But I think all sides would be pleased with Erin’s answer point that context is crucial. Historical data is not a tyrant, but rather one of many tools. Publishers use historical data in context and many other factors are taken into consideration. The market is changing so it is more difficult to predict using historical data, but more importantly editors are also driven by projects they are convinced are good and have an audience now.

We covered a lot more ground in our brief time on stage, including author access to data and PubFight as a gateway drug, but to hear more you’ll have to wait until we release the video to eNews subscribers. And the conversation is sure to continue at our next conference—Technology Forum 2012 on March 8th in Toronto. Save the date!